(WIRED) -- Facebook unleashed a new commenting system last week that promises to help online publications clean up their commenting cesspools, while simultaneously extending Facebook's tentacles further into the web outside its walls.
Unfortunately for those with visions of a non-Facebook dominated web, this initiative has the potential to dramatically expand the ginormous social network's already imperial reach.
Then, commenters have to sign in using either their Facebook or Yahoo IDs, an attempt to ensure a commenter is a real person. Commenters can opt to have their comment posted as an update, along with a link to the original story, which spreads the story link inside Facebook's walls.
This offers publishers a number of benefits. They get more links to their site from inside the net's most popular website. A lot of people are "registered" to comment on their sites. And, they have a system designed to discourage vitriol because it's easy for the site owner to ban a user and tough for a user to create a new identity.
For Facebook, the benefit is also clear. Users now have even more incentive to be constantly logged into Facebook (those who are already logged into Facebook don't have to do anything to comment on a website using its system).
Additionally, even more of Facebook's users' net activities flow through its site, since by default comments -- and replies to them -- post to a Facebook user's wall. That deepens users' ties to Facebook, adds more content to Facebook, and gives people more reason to check their Facebook newsfeed for the increased information flow.
It also builds on what's becoming Facebook's most important function: being the identity provider and validator for the wider net. The system opens the door for what's likely inevitable: having news sites rely on Facebook to identify its users and eventually to serve ads to its readers based on their individual Facebook pages.
The Facebook system competes most directly with Disqus (a system Wired.com has just starting using), which also creates a single, central profile used to comment on any site that uses the system. Facebook offers its plug-in for free, while Disqus commenting requires premium accounts for the features a large site needs to have.
The immediate drawbacks of Facebook's commenting system match the larger issues of the social networking site. There's no way to export the comments if a publication decides to drop the system -- just as Facebook jealously holds onto the e-mail addresses of the people you are connected to on Facebook so you can't re-establish your network on some other site.
Facebook will likely create some sort of export system, if only to assuage potential publications, though given Facebook's history with exporting, it will likely be bare bones and not particularly useful in practice.
Facebook's entry into this arena presents sites with three choices -- none particularly ideal.
The first is to gamble that your site is important enough to your readers that you can get away with requiring them to have a specific login for your site, and that you have the technical resources to build that out. But even if you don't use Facebook Connect, the movement seems to be away from a collection of site profiles and passwords and toward a single one that gives you entry to your collection, be it from Google, Yahoo, OpenID or others.
The second option is to go with a service like Disqus and pay that company annually to uphold the belief that there should be multiple identity providers on the net and hope they have enough staying power and stickiness to appeal to your readers.
Or, you can go with Facebook, tacitly acknowledging that the world's largest social network has won the identity wars and getting in on the spoils without paying an annual fee and agreeing to be an occupied outpost in Facebook's empire.
Online publications are desperate for a commenting system that encourages civility, and too many, including Disqus, veer closer to the land of YouTube comments than to the ideal of comments on sites like MetaFilter and Hacker News.
Sites that can afford to do so will likely continue to have their own login systems, if only so that they can collect e-mail addresses, which are still considered incredibly important for marketing and for "owning" a customer.
But doing so leaves a site open to the bad PR of being hacked (like Gawker Media) and without work by either the site or the software maker they use to publish, they will fall behind on the benefits of a social web.
Facebook is clearly gaining more of a presence around the web with its ubiquitous Like buttons and its easy-to-use login system for sites, including its often-creepy automated login system on sites like Yelp and Pandora. And with its comment system, it gains even more ground.
It's yet one more promising avenue for Facebook to encourage users to be constantly logged into Facebook, and lays more track for Facebook to become not only the net's identity provider, but also its largest referrer of traffic and its biggest provider of ads.
Is it any wonder then that investors keep pushing Facebook's valuation higher and higher? How much would you pay for an empire that encompasses nearly the entire web?
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Copyright 2011 Wired.com.